When Politics and Progress Collide: The Battle for Community Broadband

Maybe “we the people, for the people” should read “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine” – because the influence of politics on the progress of community/municipal broadband has never been more evident then in recent days.

Last week, both the EPB and the City of Wilson petitioned the FCC to preempt state laws which restricts both utilities from providing services adjacent to their service areas.

However, prior to these petitions, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)  offered an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2015 Financial Services Appropriations Bill that would prohibit taxpayer funds from being used by the FCC to pre-empt state municipal broadband laws – which passed the House with a vote of 223-200.  Chances are slim that it will pass the Senate, but it does signal that changes to the laws of 20 states that currently have restrictions on Telecommunication broadband services are not likely to occur anytime soon.

What is perhaps most disappointing about this action is the fact that those who voted for this amendment clearly do not seem understand the impact that robust broadband infrastructure can have on economic development – let alone improve educational and healthcare resources, job creation and provide more choices for both residential and business customers.

In the case of  Tennessee, many of these communities that have requested service from EPB are not only underserved in broadband, but completely unserved.


EPB

According to Section 706(a) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Congress commanded the Commission and the States to encourage the deployment of advanced telecommunications capabilities on a reasonable and timely basis to all Americans, using all regulatory methods at their disposal to remove barriers to broadband investment.

In Section 706(b), Congress also required the Commission to take affirmative action to acquire information about the pace of deployment of advanced telecommunications capabilities, to decide whether such deployment was occurring on a reasonable and timely basis, and, if the Commission ever answered that question in the negative, to act immediately to remove barriers to infrastructure investment and to promote competition.

In the state of Tenessee, broadband of at least 768kbps is available to 96.29% of households, with 93,000 households currently unserved.  If we move up to 3Mbps, the number of unserved/underserved nearly doubles to 174,000.  The question is whether the state has a goal of 100% connectivity or even a “broadband” speed target.  If it does, what is the timeframe for acheiving this?

More importantly, per TA96 – what is considered a “timely basis”?

Under current Tennessee law, EPB is authorized to provide telephone services anywhere in the state.  However, territorial restrictions prohibit EPB from using the same infrastructure (fiber optics) to provide advanced services such as broadband internet and video services outside its electric territory.

According to the petition filed by EPB – the cost of deploying services outside its electric power territory would be covered by service revenue, contributions in aid of construction, or other capital or operating support, including the use of Universal Service Funds.

However, without the ability to provide all communications services, including video programming services, it would not be economically feasible for EPB to expand its broadband network into adjacent areas.  Voice services alone would not justify the investment in new infrastructure.

So now this issue is in the hands of the FCC as they are currently soliciting comments through August 29, with reply comments due September 29.  Although FCC Chairman Wheeler has stated the following – “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.” – it remains to be seen how quickly they will act given their current slate of high-profile items (mega-mergers, Connect America Fund, spectrum auctions, etc.).

Regardless of the FCC, this may be the call to action necessary for some of these states to revisit their current telecommunications legislation and ask some hard questions about what they want from their states and communities.  It doubtful that any state representative would say ” we don’t want growth or additional tax revenue” – but that may be the very position they find themselves in if they continue to impede progress.

Yes, there are alot of angles here and yes, there have been some poor implementations of municipal broadband in the past.  But there are also more success stories than failures and there are more tools available to help these communities and municipalities make educated decisions and develop realistic business plans.

For over-builders like Google Fiber – the ability to leverage existing infrastructure is a key element of its decision to enter markets – but if state laws prevent entities from investing in this type of infrastructure – everyone loses.

If an incumbent feels threatened by someone like EPB – I would say it would be fair to give them a chance to put up – otherwise it is time to shut up.  They had their chance.  And for those of you in states that continue to have these restrictions – it time to start asking your representatives some very hard questions and if you don’t like the answer – maybe its times for new leadership.

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